Sunday, February 08, 2009

much ado about nothing

The Toronto Star jumps into the fray with an article on whole ‘births averted’ issue for the sake of the environment. There is even an online poll at the Toronto Star where opinion is currently breaking fairly evenly for both the yea and nay vote.

Meanwhile, the idea that governments may one day limit family size (however offspring are conceived) has been thrown into the bear pit by Jonathon Porritt, chair of Downing St.'s Commission on Sustainable Development. "I'm unapologetic about asking people to connect their responsibility for their total environmental footprint – how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate," he said in an interview this week.

Porritt accused politicians and environmentalists of dodging the question: "It's the ghost at the table. We have all these big issues that everybody is looking at and you don't really hear anyone say the `p' word." His commission will release a report next month calling for the government to boost family planning, even if it means shifting money from other parts of the health system into contraception and abortion – or "birth averting," as Porritt generally calls it.

"`Births averted' is probably the single most substantial and cost-effective intervention that governments could be using," he has written. He's also said approvingly of China's notorious one-child family policy that "at least 400 million births have been averted ... that's the biggest single CO2 (carbon dioxide) abatement achievement since Kyoto."

Human rights critics note that the policy, initiated in 1979, has also led to forced abortion and sterilization, infanticide, child abandonment and a disparity between males and females: 118 boys to 100 girls overall; in some rural pockets, 165 to 100. A generation of so-called "little emperors" has led to increased crime, including rape and abduction of females for brides. (The vice-minister of China's National Population and Family Planning Commission said in London last year that "we want incrementally to have this change. I cannot answer at what time or how." Analysts estimate at least a decade.)

Editorial writers snorted at Porritt's attempt to open a debate on population control. A Conservative MP dismissed the idea as "absolutely barmy." But one reader wrote The Times: "If the future of our species is in jeopardy then it is the duty of our governments to do whatever is necessary to ensure our future."But was Porritt actually talking about the risks of over-population in the developing world?Absolutely not, says York University environmentalist David Bell. The amount of environmental damage caused by eight North Americans equals 160 people in the Third World, he says."The carrying capacity of the planet is limited. Our ecological footprint – how much biosphere it takes to support one individual – is 10 to 20 times higher here. If everyone lived at that rate, we'd need three or more Earths."

A debate on population limits is valid, says Bell, even in geographically wide-open Canada. But he adds that an attempt last year by the province to look at the implications of 10 million people crowded into southern Ontario collapsed amid charges of immigration control. What Porritt is suggesting is hugely controversial, Bell says, "but it's a reality." It took all of human history for the world to reach a population of 2.5 billion in 1950. A century later, in 2050, it's expected to be a staggering 9 to 10 billion.

Strange that this discussion is happening now when the population in most western countries (with the exception of Israel and US) is declining faster than it is reproducing, and the trend for the last twenty years has been couples choosing two or less children per family unit, and with a far greater number of couples now opting for childlessness than at any other time in human history.

It is even more peculiar given that the next 20 years western countries are going to experience the largest single population drop outside of war or natural disasters as the baby boomers die off. Even in Toronto, the public school board has been experiencing a steady drop in the number of children entering the school system. Far more young people are graduating out then children are coming in. If the earth’s population is actually going to reach 9 to 10 billion by 2050 I sincerely doubt you will find western countries leading the baby boom but even more annoying to me is this new kind of disaster mongering journalism which refuses to even examine an issue critically.


bakakarasu said...

Observing that a car has been driven off a cliff and - while sailing smoothly through the air at the moment is unlikely to continue to do so - is hardly "disaster mongering".

We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in overshoot (insert car-driven-off-cliff analogy here).

Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque "life".)

In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily). Yes, all of us, yes, everywhere. There is no scenario anywhere in which population growth is a "good thing" long term.

Yes a drop in population would cause problems, but none of those problems are as big as the problems, suffering, and environmental collapse that is certain to occur if we don’t.

I disagree with any argument that there is some “right to reproduce”. If there is any "right to reproduce" it's in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing.

This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change is not impressed by national boundaries.

No technological / "alternative energy" options have the capacity or can be ramped up fast enough to avoid major global calamity. That isn't to say we shouldn't do them. Aggressively shifting to alternative energy is necessary, just not sufficient.

For more comprehensive analysis of all this I suggest

Bandura etc.

Albert Bartlett on the exponential function as it relates to population and oil:

Approaching the Limits

Bruce Sundquist on environmental impact of overpopulation

The Oil Drum Peak Oil Overview - June 2007 (

...and of course the classic "Overshoot" by Catton

Kateland, aka TZH said...

From a cursory glance at the links you provided not one instance takes into account the massive population drop the Western world is set to experience in next 20-35 years as the Baby boomers die off.

This represents an approximate 30% (or higher) of the population of western nations alone – even populous place like India and China will not be insulated from this precipitous drop. These people will be dead and therefore cannot consume.

Southern Africa is being ravished by the HIV/AIDs virus which has apparently approximately 25% of the total population. As the global downturn continues, more and more first world countries will not have the disposal income to bankroll health initiatives or sustainable development projects in third world nations. And even once the western economies eventually rebound, the days of largess for the third world nations will be a thing more or less of the past, as the tax base constricts and available tax dollars will needed to be allotted to deal with the consequences of the high cost of healthcare for dealing with aging and elderly boomers – not to mention the economic fall out from a society which needs at least 30 percent less of everything.

The Boomers were not big breeders and their children even less so. The elderly are one of the smallest groups of conspicuous consumers. Then take into account countries like China who are currently poisoning their native population through environmental toxics which will have devastating health consequences and should see more than an existential health crisis within 20 years or less, and so it is only logically to ask; how long can these massive population numbers last?

Frankly, you remind me of that old expression of about not putting your trust in kings or princes, of course, since this is the 21st century, so I would suggest it would be more apt not to put one’ faith or trust in psychologists, sociologists and journalists.

bakakarasu said...

Well, perhaps the key point in your response was the phrase
"from a cursory glance".

Please keep in mind also that I was considering this on a global basis, not a regional or nation-state one. It's true that one 'westerner' can have as much impact as 10 or 20 people in 'less developed' (less consuming) countries, but no human has zero impact.

There is no evidence of a "massive population drop the Western world is set to experience in next 20-35 years as the Baby boomers die off." There IS evidence of a likely massive global population collapse.

From the Albert Bartlett link:
"Albert: Well the world population today is growing by something a little over 1% per year; it might be 1.2% per year. So if you divide 70 by 1.2%, what you find is that 70 divided by 1.2 is equal to about 58. If the present growth rate could continue, then the population of the world would double in something a little under 60 years, 58 years. Now, it is very clear that this growth rate cannot continue. It is also clear that the growth rate globally is declining. In the early 1970s, the growth rate was up around 2% per year. That is an absolute disaster; that would be doubling every 35 years. It has been slowly declining. In most of Europe now, the growth rate of the population is zero or is negative, and that is good news from the point of view of trying to achieve sustainability."

It's good news, but I'd say insufficient to cancel out population growth elsewhere.

I argue that it is inappropriate to see overpopulation as a regional or nation-state issue, but if you insist:

population growth rate per nation:

In no case is there any evidence that global population increase has or will cease, pending a cataclysmic collapse that I'm arguing could be minimized by all of us everywhere not having children for 25 to 50 years.

Since we appear to be well beyond global carrying capacity now, and that carrying capacity will be reduced both by peak oil and environmental damage, ANY increase adds to future (and current) suffering. If you want to minimize future suffering, stop having babies. If you want to add to it, don't care, or just figure you have enough resources to avoid dealing with it personally during your lifetime, breed on.

As regards trust and faith: I have no faith since faith is based on belief in the absence of evidence. As for trust, it has to be earned via the application of critical thinking and testing over time. Mere titles or job categories are insufficient. I do find the title of "court jester" appealing though, since that was the only person who could tell the king or queen the truth and still keep his or her head. ;-)

bakakarasu said...

Some more layers to the population demographic regional vs global scenario:

See esp. p. 3 and 4 regarding age distribution and effect on population increase, fig. 4 page 22 showing projected trends toward roughly the same global birth rate in all countries, and p.32 showing effect of aids on population growth (not much). I think these data are as good as such things get, though I am quite skeptical of projections out to 2050 that don't mention either carrying capacity or oil.